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Sylvia Chronicles: Looks Can Be Deceiving

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In kindergarten, I chose my best friend based on hair color, a vivid new-penny-copper. Imperfect fruit, no matter how luscious, disgusts me. I couldn’t love a hairless cat. Appears I’m shallow, a character flaw, and one which deprives only me.

Take cartoonist Nicole Hollander’s “Sylvia,” by all accounts feminist and funny, an evolving commentary on our times. Growing up, I encountered the cultish comic, but never connected. The reason: I was put off by its heroine’s looks. That’s right – although a self-professed feminist, I can’t hear Eleanor Roosevelt’s activism over her horse teeth. When I met Bella Abzug I said, “Never mind Congress, dear, how about we nix the hats?”

After speaking with the brilliant Hollander, however, I’ve vowed to reform. Her new book “The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama,” hits stores this month and you can bet I’ll read. Goodbye knee-jerk superficiality. No more judging a book by its cover. Forget taking swipes at women’s looks. Starting now, I’m Naomi Woolf, not Rachel Zoe (speaking of hairless cats) … wait, do-over. Starting now.

Our Town: “Sylvia” maintains freshness and political relevance, how?
Nicole Hollander: Doing a weekly strip forces me to read everything: “The New York Times,” “The Daily Beast,” “” I’m always afraid I’ll miss something. Everything I use is real news (OK, you could argue with that), and Sylvia or another character reacts. I created a large group so the response would be from different points of view. Even (the cats) indirectly comment on politics or cultural trends. How can I take this information and turn it into comedy? That’s the question that keeps me going, that and a fear of empty space ... where my cartoon should have been.

OT: How has fan response changed over your career?
NH: When there was a person at newspapers whose job it was to send mail on to the cartoonist, I got more, although some of it was scary and I would have to remind myself these people didn’t know where I lived. Now I have, people write me at to order original strips or ask me to lecture or donate for an auction or tell me that the fact that I mix capital letters with lower case drives them nuts.

OT: And newspapers?
NH: Newspapers are dying, slowly, slowly but inevitably. Everything will be online, but how to earn a living with online cartoons has yet to be figured out. Having this new book has really energized me. Cartoon collections in their original form are anathema. I approached The New Press with the idea of a collection with commentary that would be a kind of political history through the eyes of a cartoonist. They went for it, and I was immediately sorry because I had to look through over 5,000 cartoons, write and then throw out cartoons that didn’t fit, and I had to find them funny and it was terrible. I worked with a friend who would feed me and let me take little naps, then make me go back to work.

OT: What comics inspire you?
NH: “Doonesbury” is brilliant. Both Trudeau and I are the children of Jules Fieffer in the sense of a fairly static drawing style combined with an ironic view of our culture. Wow, that’s bit pompous. “Dilbert” still makes me laugh, still right on about business culture. I love “Get Fuzzy,” (which) managed to mention Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in a comic strip and still be funny.

OT: Sylvia isn’t traditionally attractive. Why that artistic choice?
NH: No one ever asked me that. It’s odd because she’s modeled after a friend of my mother’s who was very sexy. Originally I thought of Sylvia as a woman who sat in front of the television for an inordinate amount of time and commented on everything. She was like my paternal grandmother who listened to the radio and talked back. Sylvia started out, bathrobe wearing, TV-watching. but with a tiny nose. As soon as I gave her that distinctive nose, she had attitude to match. (Dr. Freud, are you listening?) She has perfect confidence in herself and that makes her devilishly attractive.

Nicole Hollander tours in support of her new book through September including a stop at The Chicago Pubic Library at 6 p.m. on Sept. 13. Visit for more info.

Sarah Terez Rosenblum (@SarahTerez) is an MFA-holding writer, teacher and Spinning instructor. She's also the Theater Listings Editor for Centerstage Chicago. Look for her posts twice a week.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Wood published on August 10, 2010 2:20 PM.

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